The curious case of explicit writing instructionPosted: April 2, 2017
This weekend, I was honoured to give a talk at the Language, Literacy and Learning Conference organised by the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation in Perth. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that the subject of my talk was explicit instruction. Specifically, I discussed evidence that explicit instruction is more equitable than implicit methods (You can find my PowerPoint slides here although they won’t make much sense if you weren’t at the talk).
One point that I really wanted to stress was that explicit instruction has been tested many times and in many different settings. It’s simply not true that it has only been shown to be effective for teaching basic skills. In Project Follow Through, students in the Direct Instruction condition showed greater gains in higher order outcomes such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving. Barak Rosenshine makes the case that explicit ‘strategy instruction’ for reading comprehension and writing have also been shown to be highly effective, even if there is some criticism that reading comprehension strategies provide a one-off boost and don’t need to be practised to the extent that they often are.
It is the evidence for explicit writing instruction that I have been thinking about. I have been doing some work with my school’s English teachers, trying to find and filter evidence to support their teaching. So I went along to a session at the Language, Literacy and Learning Conference by Dr Lillian Fawcett. Fawcett works one-on-one with students to improve their written work and the session was about explicitly teaching creative writing. She had a number of scaffolds and suggested that it was important to ask students to do specific tasks rather than simply getting them to write any old thing. For instance, after setting a scene with a prompt and some teacher-student discussion, one of the scaffolds on her handout starts with, “1. Begin with your key character speaking (Make sure you include his/her name and the setting.” The next scaffold reads, “Begin with a prepositional phrase (In front… Behind… All around… Over the… Next to… Under…).
I can imagine some progressive educators feeling uncomfortable about this. They might suggest it stifle’s creativity. I am happy to have that argument because I believe that this kind of explicit teaching broadens the strategies and abilities of students and ultimately leads to them being better able to express themselves creatively.
Fawcett’s approach reminded me of a passage I read in “Explicit Direct Instruction” by Hollingsworth and Ybarra; a book I picked up at the conference. The authors distinguish between ‘talent discovery’ classrooms and ‘talent development’ classrooms:
“In talent development classrooms… we see evidence of instruction in every essay. Students are successfully practicing something they were taught, not just relying on their innate writing ability. Depending on the grade level and genre, we should see sensory details, consistent point of view, use of transition works, and so forth.”
So now to the really curious thing.
Where do you think that writing strategy instruction might feature in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) toolkit? It doesn’t have its own category and there is no category for explicit instruction. Instead, the evidence for explicit writing instruction is part of the evidence base for, “Meta-cognition and self-regulation.” This category has a single pound-sign icon, four padlocks and delivers eight additional months of progress, or so we are led to believe.
I have remarked before that, “Meta-cognition and self-regulation,” seems to be an extremely broad category of approaches. If you look through the technical report you see that it includes writing interventions alongside critical thinking interventions, philosophy for children, interventions that seem to target executive function, cognitive acceleration based on the old CASE materials, reading comprehension and more. Such a category is incoherent and useless for school leaders. Should they being explicitly teaching writing or messing about with philosophy for children? Assigning a figure of 8 months additional progress to it seems spurious and daft.
Yet rather than reviewing these categories, the folks at the EEF seems quite keen to promote this particular one. I’m not sure why.